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Monday, July 1, 2013

The Spellcaster's Heiress, Chapter 3


By Christopher Leeson


From Dyan's Journal


Crawdour had told me this:

There once was a tribe that legend calls the Mighty.  The gods had breathed life into the substance of their creations and for long centuries the Mighty bestrode the world like giants.  And they were giants, in their spirits at least, and sometimes in actual stature -- a race of sorcerers.  They were much like the gods who had called them into being, but these beings had been created to enjoy the material earth.  Their mission was to fill it with a progeny that was all but divine.  

The bodies of the Mighty could channel the gods' own power, the
cumhacht draiochta, and their minds could fashion this magic flow as they pleased.  They were supreme over Creation and, consequently, laid claim to whatsoever they pleased.  The gods, being satisfied, made lesser beings, in the image of the Mighty, to serve their senior children. 

For long ages, the Mighty held sway over the young race of Men, but at last fell from grace.  There offense was this:  They had mixed their Spirit and their Blood with the baser material of their servant kind.  Such unions, despised of the gods, gave rise to half-mortal sons and daughters, but though these were exulted among their own kind, they were less than their Mighty fathers. 

The gods were incensed that the order decreed by them had been flouted.  They swept the Mighty from the face of the earth and bound them in a realm of woeful tribulation.  They were condemned to suffer until ten thousand years should pass.  No one alive knows the day, or even the century, that the gods have set for the release of their errant children.  But all agree that the Mighty were bound a very long time ago….


The
dra√≠ochta that had been imparted to the Mighty's mortal issue remained on earth.  The gods did not blame mortals for the sins of the Mighty and left them in peace.  But the world had been changed.  Many of the Mighty's illegitimate children had the qualities of wizards. 

Some who were descended of the Mighty would possess much of the Blood, but yet have only a mortal Spirit, and hence could not wield the power drawn into them through their Blood.  Some others were born with the Spirit of the Mighty, but these also lived in frustration, being denied the Blood that would have allowed them to direct the
cumhacht draiochta by force of will.  Only those few who were sufficient in both the Blood and the Spirit became sorcerers.  

These new wizards, keenly aware of their own uniqueness, created the druidic orders.  These orders sought to wed only the best of the wizard bloodlines to others of the best, so that ever more great sorcerers would be born.  But, alas, even the spellcasters of the noblest descent often showed themselves to be just as foolish as their more powerful ancestors. . . .


*****
Moon-Shadows 

Then the blue and green dream world that had come upon me so suddenly was no more.  I opened my eyes to a confusing mosaic of shadow and moonlight.

My vision had been a false one, I now knew.  I dreaded returning to reality -- to a state of helplessness in Cawdour's magic room.  But, yet, I found myself drawing my legs, an instinctual motion, and they were full of feeling, no longer numb.  I could feel the fabric of a mattress under me.

Had I been miraculously healed, or did I still dream?

My hands pushed down the quilt that covered me.  Sitting upright, I felt a tickle upon my ears and cheeks, as if a light veil were covering my head.  I reached to draw it off, but only succeeded in pulling my own hair.

And it was hair by the handful!  I dragged a mass of it forward to behold in the corner of my eye.  It was no wig, but was attached to my scalp.  How had it come to be so long?  How many months had I lain senseless?  I touched my face, expecting to find a long beard, like Hanraoi, the man of legend who had slept an entire century, but touched instead a smooth chin and soft cheeks.  Puzzled, I struggled to swing my feet to the floor.  The quilt, slipping down around my ankles, nearly tripped me as I attempted a first step.

My senses clearing, I took note of the air; it smelled like a lady's bower.  I looked about uncomprehendingly; what I could see amid the patches of moonlight suggested a guest chamber, and the fragrance evoked a lady's bedroom. 

Where was I?  Had I been moved to some woman's quarters for tending?  If the sheriff's men had taken me, why would they have me nursed for days or weeks instead of casting me into a dungeon?

A doorway was marked by an illuminated crack.  Eager to escape the darkness, I struggled toward the exit, my coordination seemingly gone.  My hands clenched the latch ineptly and pulled the portal open.  I found myself confronted by a hall lighted by an oil lamp depending from a wall bracket. 

But when I glanced down at myself my bafflement became complete.  There, beneath my chin, was a body not my own.  I was wearing some garment of violet-colored silk.  The bare arms that showed were willowy! 

My heart sank.

I was not myself.

I had had no miraculous cure.  It was just another dream.

And I was dreaming that I was a woman!

As I turned, my arm accidentally struck an urn balanced upon a pedestal.  It toppled to the tile floor and broke with a terrible crash.  Startled, I covered my face with my hands and took gasping breaths.
 
Suddenly, another door opened and a nightgown-clad, middle-aged woman bustled toward me down the hallway.  She was looking at me with perplexity, but I should have been the one perplexed!  Her size!  She seemed taller than I, and I stood more than three span.   

"Lady!" the woman murmured.  "You are awake at last, but still look unwell!"

She had called me a lady!  She was part of my dream, of course, and no more than a figment of its fiction.

"Where am I?" I stammered, my voice weak and out of pitch.

"You poor child!" she exclaimed.  "Let me put you back to bed!"

She slipped her arm around me, but I dug my bare heels into the carpet.

"Please!  I don't know what's happened!"

"Oh, my precious one!  Don't you remember?"

"Remember what?"

"Come with me, dear," she coaxed.  "It will be all right."

She led me back into the bedroom.  She seemed to know where she was going despite the darkness and helped me under the bedclothes.  Plucking the quilt from the floor, she tucked it around me with the care of a doting aunt.

"I want a light," I whispered breathlessly.

"Just stay quiet, darling.  I'll fetch a lamp."

The giantess went out and came back a moment later, carrying a light.

Now, finally, I could see.  Just as the silken pillows and sheets, and the smell of cosmetics and flowers, had suggested , I occupied a lady's chamber.  I glanced about.  There was a standing cabinet, an ornate chest, blossoms in a vase, brightly painted animal figures on shelves, and a mirrored vanity.
 
A mirror!

I scrambled from the bed.
 
"Lady!" the woman tried to restrain me.  She was strong, but I slipped away.

"You're not well enough to be walking around!"

"I have to see myself!" I declared.  I staggered to the vanity, but the dim light was all behind me.  All I could make of the reflection was fair hair and small ears; the face was unlit and unreadable.

"B-Bring me the lamp," I stammered.

Clucking admonishments, the giantess did as asked; the shadows swung around to my flank.  A young woman stood in the yellow flicker of the light.  It was as if I was looking into a window and the girl inside was challenging me.  I felt faint and leaned over the surface of the vanity, dumbfounded.

"Ava, please," the woman implored me, "you have to get command of yourself."

Ava!  Of course!  In the glass was Ava, Cawdour's daughter!

In this, my dream, I had become Ava and the unknown woman was calling me by that name!

I hoped it was only a dream; the appalling alternative was that I was dead.  Perhaps this was not the Summer Lands, but a way station where sins on earth were avenged.

"Ma'am," I asked my companion, my legs under me barely supporting my weight, "is this the Realm of Lost Souls?"

"The World of the Lost?"  She looked incredulous.  "Oh, poor little thing!  The excitement has driven you half out of your mind!  Please lie down, Ava.  Try to rest.  Tomorrow we'll bring back the healer."

The woman guided me to the bed.  If this was a dream, I wanted to wake up and be done with it.  

*****

I slept, but only briefly I think.  Upon awakening, it was still dark outside.  I touched myself -- and I was still not myself.  Again the terrible question buffeted me.  Was I awake or asleep?  Dead or alive?  I certainly did not feel like a spirit -- unless spirits were cursed with upset stomachs and shortness of breath!

I heard breathing; I was not alone.  I saw that the dame was seated near the lamp, like a protective genius.  But realized this time that my guardian spirit was not abnormally tall; it was simply that I was of Ava's stature and shorter than her.  Dreaming or not, I needed to wheedle a little information from this lady who, I now realized, had to be a servant: 

"I'm sorry, Ma'am, but I've forgotten your name."

She started.  "My name?  I've cared for you since you were a tiny babe!  Don't you remember Seran?"

"Seran?  Yes, Seran!  Seran, what happened to me tonight?"

"I can't blame you for forgetting, poor girl.  Your father turned traitor and -- and you had to send Enit off to summon the sheriff against him."

I concealed my shock.  "Yes, I remember sending her.  Then what happened?"

"Master Cawdour forced you to go with him into the magic room.  He locked the both of you inside and we were all afraid that he was going to slay you!  By the time the sheriff's men broke down the door, your father was dead -- with nothing except a fresh cut on his neck to account for it.  We found you lying on the rug, sleeping like a little lamb."

"I think I remember a little.  Was there a -- a rebel -- in the room, too?"

"Yes -- that stinking, blood-covered scoundrel!  But he had already died of his wounds.  The sheriff took both his and your father's bodies away."

"Did the other -- rebels -- escape?" I asked, my stomach knotted.

"No, thank the gods!  Old Sulgh tried to get them out of the house, but there were soldiers on every side.  They took him along with the rebels; they'll probably all be put to death together."  She sighed.  "One of them looked like a rogue, but the other was a young woman, a pretty thing wearing riding clothes."

Ceann! I thought.

"Poor old fool," Seran went on.  "I suppose that Sulgh didn't know what sort of people the master had involved him with; he was only doing what he'd been told."

"There's so much I still can't remember," I murmured.

"Well, some things are better forgotten, my precious.  It was a terrible night!  Madness has been abroad.  Your father always seemed to be a good man and he treated me well.  What could have possessed him to traffic with rebels?"

Suddenly I wanted to be alone.  "I feel better now," I whispered.  "I think I'll be able to sleep again."

"Well, maybe you will," Seran ventured uncertainly.  Then she leaned in to place a kiss upon my forehead.

"Now I suppose you'll be able to marry Lord Harouck, if that's really what you want."

"Lord Harouck?"

"He strikes me as a very stern man, dear, but maybe a young wife is the very the thing he needs to mellow his harsh ways."

Me?  Marry Lord Harouck?  Had the universe gone insane?

Seran stood up and reached for the lamp; I pushed her hand away.  "Leave the light, Seran.  The darkness -- it frightens me."

The maid nodded patiently and withdrew, closing the door quietly. 

*****

I lay there, madly agitated.  Was this real?  Were these the insane fancies that tortured lost souls that came to the Realm of the Lost in need of punishment?

If this were reality, it had to be Cawdour's magic that had brought it about.  But why would my patron, my foster father, inflict such a fate on me?  I could not believe that he had acted in malice.  But if he intended to good good, what could have moved him to curse me so?

But wait!  Cawdour had always said that I possessed the soul of a sorcerer.  He had said that his daughter Ava, contrariwise, had inherited the Blood but lacked the Spirit.  Was Cawdour trying to unite the disparate qualities that comprised a wizard?  Legend spoke of such things, but the witches and wizards who performed the dark arts were considered evil beings at odds with the order decreed by the gods.

Might it be true?  Had I been endowed with the magical abilities that came with one who possessed both the Spirit and the Blood of the ancient Mighty?

How could I test such a conjecture?

"Let me fly," I suggested to my borrowed body.  I held my breath, waiting for lightness to overtake me, but I remained earth-bound.

I was being foolish.  This was no story written in a book!  Cawdour had said that young wizards needed to be trained.  He had even told me where I should seek for that training.  I tried to remember the name given me; it was a woman, I recalled.  Yes, the Lady Elekta, the foreign-born witch who was Ava's own mother!

I had to find her.

I would be all but helpless traveling in this shape, but if one wizard could transmigrate my spirit into a woman's body, might another not place me in a shell more congenial?  As a warrior I could achieve the revenge on  Harouk that Cawdour had made me promise.

But where did my patron say that Elekta lived?  Gan-Cann?  I knew that to be a shire north and east of Moyarien, and Moyarien lay not far from Cawdour's country house.  I suddenly trembled with hope.  With hope comes courage, too, and I decided to take another look at myself in the mirror.

I left the bed and walked to the vanity, my legs a little steadier this time.  With a churning in my guts, I steeled myself to bear the sight of the spellcaster's daughter.

She stepped before me like a ghost.  Coppery hair.  A light but healthy-looking body.  A graceful, curving neck.  Full lips, a small tapering nose, and wide-set -- but now vein-traced -- green eyes.  The idea that this was my own face appalled me.

Perhaps I was not so steady on my feet as I'd thought, for a wave of weakness made me clutch for the back of the chair.  I fell into it and rested my forehead on the rested on top of the vanity. 

My strength returned and I looked into the glass yet again.  Ava's face still haunted it.  I tried hard to forget my dismay at occupying such a shape and made an effort to take stock of the body, to look at it as a potential resource. 

Ava's light build told me that she would have the physical strength of a boy of twelve or less.  With baited breath, I touched myself.  How could I ever have supposed that breasts were beautiful?  I tried not to think that they had come as an exchange for something that I put much more value in.  I shook my head, not knowing what to think. 

But I had to think, had to anticipate the danger I was in.  I had to work out a plan that would get me back to where I belonged.

This was the only body I had, so I'd have to make use of it.  For the present, I would have to impersonate a daughter of the nobility.  I knew little about how girls lived their lives behind closed doors.  What I knew came from my sisters who had been but children when I left home.  I had met other young women at balls and in more personal dalliances, of course, but most of those whom I came to know best had not been ladies.  

Also, there was the danger posed by Harouck's ambitions.  Without Cawdour to stand in his way, the lord might at any time order me -- Ava -- to his presence as his "betrothed."  Before the tyrant decided to confine me in his palace, I wanted to be far away.

Like any human being who finds himself bereft of resources and at the end of his wits, my instinct was to go home.

*****

I knocked on Seran's door.  The poor lady, tired and bleary, opened it a moment later.

"I'm going riding," I told her.  "Help me get ready."

"Riding?  Lady -- since when do you ride?"

"I learned recently," I explained.  "Hurry up, please."

"It's the middle of the night, Ava!  You have lain in a swoon for a day and a night!" she protested.

"I know.  That's why I am so very well rested.  Please, hurry."

I stalked determinedly back into "my" room, with Seran bustling close after me.

"I'll need a riding dress," I said.  "Pick me out one.  Quickly."

"Riding dress?  I didn't know that you owned such a thing."

"Then just find me a warm frock -- a modest one!"

The attendant, somewhat beside herself, went to the clothes cabinet.  I didn't fancy the idea of wearing a dress, but had I asked for some servant boy's trousers I might have been detained as a madwoman!

To my annoyance, Seran returned with a fanciful contrivance of lace and ribbing.  I took it, but only to toss the absurd thing to the other side of the bed.  "A plain dress, madam," I declared, "not this foppish nonsense!"

She next came up with a woolen frock, but before I could slip into it, I had to don several foundational garments.  These she held out to me one at a time.  Dressing a woman's body, it appeared, would be an involving job!  Why did the other sex think that it had to wear so many layers?

It was fortunate that Ava traveled with enough footwear to shod an entire village.  Even so, only a couple pairs of what she had had at my disposal struck me as remotely practical or comfortable.   

"Now a warm cloak," I directed the maid, "and then go wake up a stable hand.  I'll need a fast horse.  Be sure to tell him exactly that -- a fast horse."

"Ava, don't do this!" Seran pleaded.  "Those great beasts are dangerous.  You're not well.  If you go riding in the dark, you might never be brought home alive!"

She was probably right.  I didn't want to come back to Cawdour's house.  It could never again be anything to me except a scene of tragedy and horror.  My salvation, whatever that turned out to be, must surely lay elsewhere.

I think it was my demeanor, that of an officer in command, that convinced Seran that she had to oblige me.

"Wait!" I called out as she was scuttling toward the door.  "I'll need some money.  Bring me as much as you can find."

"Money?" Seran blinked.  "Only Sulgh had the key to the chest -- and he's in prison, or dead."

"All right then," I asked, "where's my jewelry?"

"You always like to keep it in a vanity.  Is your memory still bothering you, dear?"

Ignoring her cloying manner, I started emptying the drawers and quickly located a jewel box.  Ava, seemingly, owned a small fortune in gems -- pins, rings, necklaces, bracelets, brooches, earrings, and combs.  Either Cawdour or his ex-wife had indulged their daughter shamelessly, or else the girl had acquired a great many trinkets from male admirers, including -- I had to consider with distaste -- Harouck.

Because it would not be easy for me to carry a box on horseback, I rummaged about until I discovered a drawstring bag filled with beauty paints.  I dumped out the contents and replaced them with Ava's valuables. 

Clucking under her breath, had Seran set off to the stables.  Welcoming the privacy, I dashed though the main part of the house, searching for anything useful to a traveler.  I noticed a weapons display on the wall and pulled down the best blade, a middleweight rapier.  But the heft of it!  So little upper body musculature remained to me.  I put the thing down; it would have served me ill in any fight!

Cursing fate, but not wanting to go unarmed, I took down a dagger with a belted sheath, which I looped over my shoulder.

Being too agitated to wait for Seran's return, I bustled outside and then paced back and forth under a silver-metal moon.  At long last, the stableman emerged from the shadows, leading a spry young mare, one as tall as a warhorse.  That was only an illusion, of course.  What wasn't an illusion was the grotesque equipment strapped to the animal's back!

A sidesaddle!

It was one of those infernal contrivances designed for sporting women.  Its ungainly design placed a rider perpendicular to the horse's spine, her feet supported by a footrest.  This was not enough to prevent a woman from being thrown by any job, so a leather hook, which served as another rest, secured one of her thighs.  This design left the horsewoman with almost no control over her mount and, as far as I could see, placed her life at continual risk.  This hazard had to be endured just so a lady might keep her knees together!

"How do you expect a ma --, er, me to sit on such a preposterous thing?" I scolded.  "Get me a man's saddle!"

"A man's?  Wouldn't that be -- unseemly, Lady Ava?"

"I'll decide what's unseemly, my good man," I replied.  "Now get cracking!"

A new saddle was soon brought out and skillfully cinctured into place.  I thrust my foot into the stirrup, eager to be off, but, alas, the accessory hung just a little too high for me.  I was reduced to bouncing up and down while trying to attain the beast's back.

"Damn it!" I growled.

"Allow me, my lady," offered the stableman.

I permitted him to lift me up by the waist, but the skirts I wore were narrow and didn't allow me to sit astride a horse.  A woman would have to hitch the hem up over her knees -- which certainly would have drawn too much attention.

Instead, I applied my dagger to the tough wool, emulating my mistress Ceann, whose riding skirts were rakishly slitted.  I knew tailoring so crude would make me look like something of a beggar in a ragged cast-off, but I judged that my cloak would afford me sufficient modesty, should I desire it.

That any human being had to think about fashion at such a desperate time was almost beyond belief!

Finally ready to ride, I kicked my mare's muscular flanks and urged her down the carriage path.

*****

I rode for a long while through the moon-shadows.  On the left, the roadside hemlocks were but silhouettes separated by ribbons of argentine.  Before I knew it, the hour had made the transition from very late to very early.  The eastern sky slowly illuminated to a dove gray, and this, in turn, graded into pale vermilion just before dawn.  At last, when the sun was peering down like a half-open eye above the woodland, I felt its warm radiation.  Already well heated from my exertions, I unknotted my cloak tie and let the garment fall to my hips.  The breaking of a new day should have been uplifting, my state of mind kept my mood dour. 

Had I made a hasty judgment in leaving the house?  Would it not have been more prudent to pretend to be Ava for a few days more, while getting my bearings and sorting out the situation?  I wasn't sure.  Maybe it was the very idea of being promised to Harouck that had driven me to abscond.  Now my instinct was to press on. Once I've set out on a course, I always detest backtracking. 

Also, I would have no peace of mind as long as I stayed at Cawdour's house.  What I needed more than anything was a haven where I'd feel safe, could rest, and have the luxury of planning my next move.  If I found friends, I wondered whether I should continue to play Ava, or I declare myself at once?

By now I had grown quite weary and my pace accordingly slowed.  Each jog had started to punish me with jolts of pain.  I was getting saddle sore!

Saddle sore -- me, Rodin Oc'Raighne, horseback warrior?

So many new weaknesses!  I could imagine myself in my old shape by staring straight ahead at the roadbed.  But that game had ended the first time in which my bladder forced me to confront reality.

I had no lack of water, at least; the road mostly followed a creek that must have been flowing to the River Gweir.  But by high noon my stomach was growling and I felt the sickly weakness that comes with hunger.  Ava had, perhaps, eaten no food since before Cawdour had stunned her.  Fool that I was, I had neglected to ask Seran for a pack lunch.  As it was, before the sun was very high, I hardly felt able to push on. 

Beyond that, my saddle-tortured parts were crying for respite.

I needed to buy a meal somewhere, but felt timorous about meeting with other people.  I would have to pretend to be a normal woman doing a very abnormal thing -- traveling alone.  I'd done some impersonation as a military infiltrator and spy, of course, but could I pass for a lady?  Furthermore, it would be a high-risk proposition to run into scoundrels while in my present shape.
Under Harouck, lawlessness had increased, but it was patriots whom he hunted, not bandits.  Maybe the man felt an affinity for robbers; I didn't know.  The thought that nagged at me was that though I might, in theory, have the Spirit and Body of a sorcerer, in practice I possessed only the defensive strength of a teenaged girl.

I at last happened by a cottage where a woman toiled at laundry.  My hunger commanded me to stop, but I deemed it wise to ride a little past the house to hide my scrip, just in case the house sheltered robbers.  Then I backtracked and, as I reined up, the matron's husband strode out from behind the house. 
He was a big mustachioed man in woolen britches and a leather jerkin, the dirt of the spring planting dark upon his hands.  His wrinkled face creased even more deeply as he sized me up.  If I could read a man, I would have supposed that he looked honest.  It was risky to trust a face, true, but there was going to be risk in nearly everything that I did, at least until I was back among friends.
 
I asked the couple if they might spare a traveler some provender and the husband showed me to a bench indoors.  His wife set the best they had before me -- though it was only black bread and cider.  Winter stores always ran low among the peasantry by springtide, and the first fruits of the year were as yet only a hope.  I dug into the fare gratefully. 

Sometimes my rebel crew and I had feasted much better than this, and often much worse.  As I soaked the hard bread to soften it I wondered whether Ava's mouth had ever taken in such coarse fare.  I doubted it.  Sated at last, I reached for payment.  I had pinned a small pearl inside my cloak, anticipating needing to pay for this meal.  I set it down before my hosts.

"It's too much!" protested the lady.  "We're just poor people!"

"Please take it," I urged her.  "I was becoming desperately hungry before I found your farm.  I have no coins left."

The husband shook his head admonishingly  "It's not safe to travel alone with gems, Lady.  We're too close to Moyarien.  Lots of riffraff and foreigners ride the road these days.  Those Herzeloyde mercenaries are the worst of the lot," he added with evident distaste.

I took his concern to be real and thanked him with a forced grin.  Then I took leave of the farmers with a hasty goodbye.  Despite the early hour, I had been tempted to ask for a spot to sleep -- and certainly I had paid enough to gain lodging along with a meal -- but I was not disposed to be trusting.  Instead, like the forest rebel I had been for some while, I left the road and found a grassy patch at some distance away from the likely traffic.  I tied my mount at a grassy spot and then slept for a bit.  It could not have been long, for when I opened my eyes it was only early afternoon. 

At twilight, after a ride even more painful than the first, a second family of cottagers proved hospitable.  Maybe it was the sight of small children that reassured me, but after dining on fish and bread, I dared to request a sheltered corner in which to pass the night.  The couple obligingly turned their little daughter out of her straw tick for my benefit.  Like before, I paid with a pearl, letting them see that my cloak was now empty, just in case these benign-seeming cottagers were capable of robbery and violence.

The night passed peaceably however, and, after breakfast, I recovered my hidden treasure from underneath the loose bark of a rotten log.  Then I continued down the road with teeth set, my soreness only sharpened by a night's absence from the saddle.
 

To be continued....

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